If you walk into Legal Sea Foods at The Street in Chestnut Hill, you may be greeted by a diminutive lady with pink lips and fantastic style who doesn't resemble the other hosts, college-aged, ready with menus. The woman is Mimi Leavitt, and she serves as something of a part-time maitre d' at Legal Sea Foods' second-ever restaurant, which, celebrating 40 years this year, is the oldest still standing on its original site.
Mimi has been a Legal guest since the first eatery opened in Inman Square, Cambridge in 1968, bringing her three children to wait outside the restaurant for a table. Her late husband, Peter Leavitt, was an MIT graduate and meteorologist, who Legal Sea Foods president and CEO Roger Berkowitz calls "a hero," because Leavitt would call the restaurateur ahead of inclement weather that he thought might affect the day's business, on land and sea.
In 1978, for example, Berkowitz got a call from Mr. Leavitt, advising him that a blizzard was headed toward Boston. So, Berkowitz stocked up on all the fresh fish he could get his hands on, thinking he wouldn't be able to buy it later in the week. Well, as a then-record 27 inches of snow buried Boston, he didn't end up selling the fish. At least he was prepared.
When Peter passed away in 2013, Mimi sought a job with her favorite restaurant of several decades and her longtime friend, Berkowitz. Now, "she works the room," Legal Sea Foods executive chef and vice president Richard Vellante said.
Mimi Leavitt is one person who has impacted the history of Legal Sea Foods, which opened its first restaurant in 1968. Below, Berkowitz and Vellante share other stories.
Your company is a leader in seafood restaurant chains —
Roger Berkowitz: Uh! You said "chains." Group! Group!
A leader of seafood restaurants, sorry! And your company has a large number of them. So, you started in 1968 —
Actually, our history goes back a little bit longer. My grandfather had a grocery store in 1904. You know, produce and meats. My father opened up a fish market in 1950. We were food first, fish second, and restaurants came later. That was all in Cambridge. In Inman Square, the grocery store was next to the fish market. When my grandfather retired, they had the space, and they decided to open the restaurant.
At the time, what was the seafood restaurant market like? Did folks eat a lot of seafood in 1968?
"If you go back to 1968, there really weren't very many high-quality restaurants."
They ate a little seafood. If you go back to 1968, there really weren’t very many high-quality restaurants. The highest quality were maybe the Ritz, Cafe Budapest — remember the Cafe Budapest? — Pier 4, Jimmy’s Harborside, Dini’s Sea Grill, that was back on Tremont Street. That was really it. There really weren’t a lot of restaurants in general and seafood restaurants in particular.
What was your father’s goal when he opened the restaurant? Did he see this great potential?
It was interesting. It was just sort of like, Let’s try a restaurant. It wasn’t a grand design. It was more like, We have the space, why don’t we take the fried fish and chips from out back and put it on paper plates and picnic tables?
It appears to have worked.
It’s okay. He’s still alive. He’s 90. He does [visit]. More during the day time.
So, in 1975, when this place opened, what was the company like? How had you expanded at that point?
This was the second restaurant. There were always thoughts of expanding. The guy who owned this area was a guy called Danny Rothenberg. He was sort of a legend in the development business back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. He just passed away a few years ago.
The great thing was, Danny came into Inman Square, Cambridge, the original one, and he’s looking at my father, my father is looking at him. Danny walks over to my father to get his name, and my father says to him, "You were a lousy second baseman." They realized they grew up and they had gone to camp together. So, that sort of reignited a friendship. He had just shown up; someone had told him about the restaurant. So, he said, "I want you to come to Chestnut Hill." So, in 1975, my father and my brother, Mark, came over here, and the restaurant opened. We’re still at the original site.
What was your job with the company at the time?
I was [running] the original.
What did this restaurant look like then?
The layout was similar. We’ve gone through a few iterations. I can’t really explain it [yet], but we’re slated for a major, major renovation in about a year, year and a half. The look and feel will be more contemporary, but really part of the same DNA of fresh fish.
I imagine this area was probably pretty different, too?
It’s actually pretty much the same. They’ve added on, but this strip was essentially the same. It was in front of Hammond Pond over there. It was always right on Route 9. It was really one of the better — as we learned, over time, because we didn’t really know very much about real estate — it was really one of the better retail sectors of Boston.
That doesn’t surprise me, actually, knowing the general demographics. Boston College is, what, a mile, if that?
If that. This was one of the better bedroom communities, in terms of affluence and location. Logistically, it’s close to Brookline; Newton is right here. It’s right in the middle of things. But also, it’s also close to West Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan. Even though it was affluent on one side, it had great access to some of the other neighborhoods. This restaurant is like the original urban/suburban melting pot. We always saw great diversity coming to this restaurant, and you wouldn’t necessarily expect it if you think it’s just a Chestnut Hill zip code. It really crosses all sectors, right here.
Is that still the same?
Absolutely. Having a college nearby, certainly, with college students, parents visiting, faculty, sports teams, it certainly doesn’t hurt. It is an affluent zip code, but there are all sorts of office buildings around us, and it’s so close to so many communities, it’s one of those great regional spots.
You said the restaurant itself has gone through different iterations. How has it changed, menu-wise, and how is it poised to change?
Richard Vellante: It’s evolved over time, like anything.
Rich, what’s your background with the company?
I’m going on my 20th year with Legal’s. And actually, Chestnut Hill was the first one I started at. I was a manager, I guess, if you will. In the kitchen. [Now, Vellante is executive chef for the entire Legal Sea Foods group of restaurants.]
RB: I had forgotten that. Mimi said, "He was here in the very beginning!" Mimi remembered; she said that as he was coming in.
RV: Yep, 20 years ago. It was very different, for me. The kitchen was bigger. And the menu has evolved. Over the years, in response to societal changes, we’ve added premium vegetable side dishes, styles of dishes, appetizers. But we still keep the tried-and-true menu items. The Jasmine [Special] is something that Roger came up with.
RB: One day, I was looking for something a little bit different, so it’s shrimp on rice, with a little bit of an herbal marinade, a vinaigrette we use, and broccoli, and the plate was covered in cheese. Other people tried it, and it was pretty good, so it went on [the menu.] I didn’t go to culinary school.
RV: Anna’s baked scrod is another one.
RB: That came from Inman Square.
RV: That’s a quintessential baked cod dish that’s just as comforting [now], and it speaks of New England.
RB: Anna was our first employee at Inman Square Cambridge. She was a manager and was with us at a number of locations, but primarily Inman Square, then Park Square, and she finished up in Kendall Square. She passed away a few years back.
When we started, we only had fried fish on the menu, and we were trying to figure out how to broaden the menu. She said, "Well, I have my mother’s recipe from the old country." Being Ireland.
"When we got into the restaurant business...we really had no idea what we were doing."
When we got into the restaurant business, particularly with the first couple of ones, we really had no idea what we were doing. But it always started with quality product. It was our guess what customers liked. For the most part, we guessed right, but I’m sure we did some bonehead things.
And you’ve got to evolve. You started out with an all-fried menu, so I imagine the menu is lighter now?
RV: We made some major changes, but yes, it’s lighter: More grains, more vegetables. Roger was a leader in the trans fat movement. Boy, when was that? In the early late '90s, maybe 2000. Roger came to me and said, "We need to remove trans fats from our oil." This is before anyone was even talking about it. He said we need to take them out of crackers and anywhere else that had them.
So, we went to our purveyors, and they thought we were crazy and didn’t really understand it. We really had to work hard at finding people who would support us on this. We were out in front, and back then it was like pulling teeth. What’s a trans fat? Why are we taking this out? And no, we’re not going to. We found people who were willing to support us, and we were a leader on that.
What made you want to champion that?
RB: I had been asked to be a part of something called the Nutrition Round Table at the Harvard School of Nutrition. The gentleman running it, in fact he’s still running it, is the chairman of the department of nutrition, Walter Willett. Walter asked me if I use any trans fats, and I said, "How would I know?" He said to look for "hydrogenated." Then he explained how bad it was. When you know something you’re doing is potentially really negative, you’ve got to run with that information.
I was probably a little naive thinking that Nabisco would just take it out of their item. But not so fast. It was sort of like running into a few barriers, but eventually it happened, and we feel good about it.
Shortly thereafter, Richard and his group started hearing a lot about celiac disease, and we were hearing about it a little too often not to realize something was happening. So, Richard and his team put out a gluten-free menu in 2005.
RV: Now, I can say that all of our fried food is gluten-free. It’s been a big change for us.
Having restaurants in a lot of different parts of the East Coast probably helps you be on the forefront of these issues.
"At the end of the day, yes, it’s a business, but we tend to look at it more as a way of life. "
RB: Because we’re in the fish business and the restaurant business, we march to a little bit of a different beat, and things occur to us differently. At the end of the day, yes, it’s a business, but we tend to look at it more as a way of life. I don’t know if that sounds corny, but you wake up and you try to live your life a certain way, and you try to make sure your values are being instilled in a certain way. That’s how we look at it.
We talked about what the seafood restaurant landscape was when you started Legal Sea Foods. Now, you look at the Boston area and the suburbs for sure, and there are tons of upscale seafood restaurants, raw bars, sashimi bars, and everything. From your perspective, and being in the fish business as well, how has the landscape evolved?
The Northeast is probably a little more sophisticated in terms of menu options than other parts of the country. The Northeast also benefited by virtue of the fact that there are so many species of great seafood right along the coast. The fact that we’re located so close to Gloucester or Boston, right where the fish is coming in, I think that adds to the popularity of seafood.
One of the people who helped stimulate the interest of seafood in particular was a woman who moved into the area around Inman Square, and she used to purchase [Legal Sea Foods] product for herself, then she started putting the product, with a few shoutouts, on her PBS show. Her name was Julia Child. That also stimulated the interest in seafood. Many people who grew up in this area did not know how to cook fish. But she demystified the cooking of fish.
You have a lot of restaurants that want to convey farm-to-table. Certainly, the proximity of seafood is right there, so I think that added to the popularity, as well. But we distinguish ourselves, in that we’re in the fish business. There are other seafood restaurants out there, certainly. But they’re in the restaurant business selling fish, and we’re in the fish business opening restaurants. I think there’s a distinct difference in doing that.
RV: He said it best. It’s a way of life.
So, there are a lot of different restaurants whose philosophy differs from yours. But at the end of the day, the average consumer goes out for seafood and has only so much money to spend. These days, I see crudo everywhere, small plates, raw towers, and things like that, which you guys probably have. But you started with the classic entrees. How do you meet consumer demand?
RV: Our menus have evolved, and the concepts have changed. We’re more than just one concept. You’ve seen that over more recent years. Whether it’s plates to share, different preparations, different flavor profiles, we’ve introduced them. And some of them we’ve even introduced at Legal Sea Foods.
But for us, it’s a balance between the traditional, which we love, and it stands the test of time. It’s really great food, which you don’t see all the time: Consistent, great food. We don’t always want to be chasing the next great thing.
So, [Rich], you started here as a kitchen manager, and [Roger], obviously, you’re your father’s son. How have your roles changed?
RB: Well, I still am! [laughter] I used to have to stand on a milk crate and weigh fish. This is pre-digital, you know. This is when you had to read the bar.
So, how have things changed? Reading your bio on the company website, it sounds like you’re a busy man.
It hasn’t really changed much. I still sell fish. That’s the connection. You learn along the way, certainly, but it’s continual learning. The other thing that is impressed on all of us is the world changes. Whatever worked 20 or 30 years ago doesn’t mean it’s going to work today and tomorrow. What are the things that will always transcend? It’s quality and quality assurance of the fish product. But how we deliver it, how the place looks and feels, how the hospitality is, those things are always subject to change.
That applies not just to the restaurant business but to businesses in general. We look at that in terms of how are people eating? A number of years ago, we were fortunate in that we realized people were eating differently. Millennials are eating a lot differently than aging boomers and seniors. It’s a lost more tapas-style, a lot more experimentation, it’s less traditional appetizer, entree, dessert. And the times they eat are different. As in business in general, you have to be really adaptable and appreciative of some of the changes going on.
So what does the future look like? You mentioned this place is poised for an update.
It will be designed differently. I can’t say too much about it, but it will be physically different, and it will appeal to the way people are eating now, and the menu will reflect that. It’ll be an evolution. And the balancing act for us: This is our greatest cross-section of customers from seniors, aging boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Y, Millennials, so how do we come up with the right look/feel that no one will feel put off by what we come up with? This one will be a challenge, and a lot of thought is going into it.
What are some of the standout moments in Legal Sea Foods Chestnut Hill’s 40-year history?
RV: I think often about the holiday time, because we have a market here. Just the effort put into the guest demands...we rent another refrigerated truck to handle all the takeout shrimp platters. During the holidays, people want to take things home — we have the market year-round, but it’s busiest at the holidays.
Also, thinking about some of the cooks that have been here before, like George, Roger’s father, in the very beginning. Some of the guys I’ve worked with here, they’ve been here 30-plus years. They tell stories, which are always memorable for me.
RB: Patrick Brown is the last remaining [original cook]. He’s at our airport restaurants now. He’s the chef at Terminal B. He’s been here about 44 years. He opened this place. He worked with me in Inman Square, and then we got him over here. [Ida Faber, Legal's director of marketing strategy, chimes in, "He got poached!"]
What about any celebrities?
RB: You know who used to eat here all the time? Arthur Fiedler, of the Boston Pops. He has the footbridge named after him.
Do you know the novelist Dennis Lehane? He married one of our bartenders here. Now it’s his ex-wife, but that’s another story. Gordon Taylor works for us downtown, but he worked for us at Inman Square, too. Gordon Taylor’s name is in some of Dennis’ books because he was here when Dennis was dating his future wife and he would come in.
[Legendary Celtics coach] Red Auerbach is a friend, but he visited more downtown, in Park Square. Julia Child would come in here, too. Mostly in Boston and Cambridge, but she was here as well.
A lot of people from Boston and Cambridge, if they were coming out to the suburbs, Chestnut Hill is a good place. We have a lot of loyal and shared clientele. A lot of people come through the door in a 40-year history.
[Inset photos: Provided. 1) An ad that originally ran in the Boston Globe in 1975. 2) Roger Berkowitz in the market at the Chestnut Hill location in the 1980s.]
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.